Dave Pell is perhaps best known for his octet, which he has led with an ever-changing roster of top musicians since 1953. The idea was to match a front line of horns consisting of trumpet, trombone, tenor sax and baritone sax with a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums. On paper, what Dave wanted to do with the octet seemed odd: Record little-known songs of popular Tin Pan Alley composers. Naysayers in the early 1950s wondered why anyone would want to hear square tunes played by jazz musicians who should know better. Then the doubters heard the concept in action: Hip, swinging charts scored by Hollywood's leading arrangers and played by leading band and studio musicians.
This seemingly simple American Songbook concept predated Verve producer Norman Granz's own "jazz plays Tin Pan Alley" albums by about a year. Dave's songbook formula also became popular with many other West Coast jazz recording artists throughout the 1950s. Then as Dave began playing campus proms, the "swinging standards" trend soon led to college dancing albums.
In Part 3 of my three-part conversation with Dave, the tenor saxophonist talks about the formation of his famed octet in the early 1950s, his Prez Conference band formed in the late 1970s that continues to play Lester Young's solos, and what it's like to own and play Lester Young's Dolnet tenor saxophone:
JazzWax: How did the idea for your octet come about?
Dave Pell: I was playing in Les Brown's orchestra in the early 1950s. I just put together eight musicians from the big band. We originally had Don Fagerquist [pictured] on trumpet; Ray Sims, Zoot's brother, on trombone; I was on tenor; Ronnie Lang was on baritone, Geoffrey Clarkson was on piano; Tony Rizzi was on guitar; Rollie Bundock was on bass, and Jack Sperling was on drums.
JW: How about the tight arrangements?
DP: That was Shorty Rogers’ idea to borrow ideas from Les’ big band arrangements written by Frank Comstock and Skippy Martin. Actually, we didn’t steal anything or anyone. This is why Les was so beloved by so many musicians. I went to Les and told him what I wanted to do. He was all for it. When Albert Marx started Trend Records, he came to one of the octet's rehearsals and flipped when he heard us. We began recording for Trend soon afterward. [Photo: Dave Pell, standing, and Ronnie Lang in 1954]
JW: What did Shorty do?
DP: When we were just getting together, Shorty was very excited. He said he’d write charts with the guitar on the bottom and Don Fagerquist on top, with the rest of us voiced in between. He said, “We’ll do hipper stuff than the big band.” Two weeks later, Shorty finished the charts. The big idea was to take the new West Coast linear jazz sound and apply it in a more commercial format.
JW: How so?
DP: We kept the formula tight. We'd played a song's intro and then each horn would take a short solo. I didn't want 17 choruses. Just one solo each. It was very different for the time.
JW: In the beginning the albums had a theme.
DP: That's right. I had a premise to take seldom-heard songs by major composers and give them the West Coast treatment. They had to be good songs, of course. So you'd have songs like Irving Berlin's Better Luck Next Time voiced for the octet and they'd swing. The first albums we did starting in 1953 were Dave Pell Octet Plays Irving Berlin, Plays Burke and Van Heusen and Plays Rodgers and Hart. The personnel in our group changed a bit as guys came and went. Marty Paich was writing for me a lot then, too. I'd do all kinds of research and find the songs. Then Marty and Shorty would swing them.
JW: Was there a risk of being corny?
DP: Oh sure. People said the concept sounded nuts. It was elevator music, but hipper. The critics loved it. Some called the albums “mortgage-paying jazz” [laughs]. The octet got so hot that we wound up playing every prom in the country. Just when big bands were starting to die off, I had an eight-piece band that played everywhere.
JW: Why did you do so much commercial work?
DP: Because it paid well? [laughs]. Seriously, though, when Les Brown's band was on the skids, I convinced many of the guys who were playing with me to leave the band permanently. I said, "Come on, we'll split the money evenly." They came aboard, so I had to keep them employed. They had families. I'd take anything that paid to keep the income flow going.
JW: Who else wrote for the octet?
DP: Marty [pictured] wrote about 75% of my book. I also had John Williams and Jerry Fielding. Bill Holman wrote some charts, too. Every week we’d finish an album. Two weeks later we’d do another one. And the albums sold well. Everyone digs harmony. And everyone knew the songs. It was a winning formula.
JW: You also became known for another group—Prez Conference, in the late 1970s.
DP: Back in the early 1970s, [saxophonist] Med Flory and [bassist] Buddy Clark came to me with the idea for a sax section that played orchestrated transcriptions of Charlie Parker's solos. I was producing records at the time. It sounded interesting. Then they told they wanted to get paid to write the charts [laughs]. That lost me right away. The charts were so long and required many, many pages of copying. It didn't sound like it was going to be commercially profitable.
JW: What happened?
DP: I told them I could help them get a record deal but I couldn’t afford to put it on my label. So Med and Buddy copied all the parts themselves. They wound up at Capitol and had a huge success in the mid-1970s with Supersax.
JW: What did you think of Supersax?
DP: They sounded great. So great that I went to my old friend Gene Norman of GNP Crescendo Records. I told him that I had an idea. I said, "Given Supersax’s success, how about me having Bill Holman write up Lester Young’s solos for a Four Brothers-like band?" I told him I’d also get [Harry] “Sweets” [Edison] to break up the sax charts with those muted trumpet solos. There would be no tenor solos. The saxes would collectively sound like Lester Young.
JW: What did Norman say?
DP: Gene dug it. So I got my hands on every tune Prez [Lester Young] had ever played. I even had two versions of songs he recorded for different record companies. Then Bill wrote arrangements based on two or more Prez's solos.
JW: What was the plan?
DP: We were going to follow in Supersax’s steps and create this big Lester Young sound, which meant it would be more melodic than Supersax. The first album in '78, In Celebration of Lester Young, did very well. People who had bought the Supersax albums bought ours. When "Sweets" Edison heard the sound coming off the sax section in the studio, he cried. We all did. Sweets had been there when Lester played those solos.
DP: You recorded a second album in early 1979.
JW: Yes. Right after the first one came out, I ran into singer Joe Williams [pictured] and asked if he wanted to sing with the group. He loved the idea. So we got together with Bill Holman. The big difficulty we had was keeping the songs in specific keys so they’d be in the right range for the horns. The section had to sound like Prez, so they had to be in his keys. But those keys weren’t always ideal for Joe. But it didn't matter. Joe knocked them out anyway. He was great. That second album was Prez and Joe.
JW: Did Prez Conference play concerts and clubs?
DP: Yes, absolutely. I booked all the festivals. We still tour. Back then, Joe tore it up. He’d even come out early just to sing on top of us. Every now and then Joe and I would play golf. Every time he’d come to L.A. to record or play a club, he’d call me. Whenever he’d perform with Prez Conference at clubs, we'd be up all night and then play golf the next morning. Joe was a hell of a golfer. He was the king of Chicago. We’d play every golf course in that town when we were there. They loved him there.
JW: Speaking of Prez, you own Lester Young’s Dolnet saxophone. How did you get it?
DP: From Lee Young [pictured], Lester’s brother. Lee and I used to play golf a lot. Lee was with some dumb record company that went broke. I was running Liberty Records at the time with eight different sub-labels. I said to Lee, “Come work with me, and I’ll give you a gig running Sunset Records." He did, and we became close. We played golf every other day. We’d work and then play golf. Lee became my best friend.
JW: Did Lee Young hear Prez Conference?
DP: Oh yes. He used to come and listen to my octet. Then when I started Prez Conference, he came to listen and loved it. When Lee heard the band, he realized how much I loved Lester. One day he said, “I have Lester’s Dolnet horn, and you should have it when I die.” I was blown away. Lee’s kids wanted the horn but he was afraid to let them have it. He said, “I don’t want them to sell it or put it in a museum." Lee said he’d will it to me so the gift would be legit. Then he said, "When you die, give the kids the horn by willing it to them.” I said sure.
JW: What else did Lee ask you to do?
DP: He said he just wanted the horn to be played every day, so people would hear the music of his brother.
JW: What happened when Lee died in July 2008?
DP: Lee's son called and told me that the horn was mine, that Lee had indeed left it to me in his will.
JW: How was the horn to play?
DP: Tough at first. It has a Brilhart mouthpiece, which is great. But when I got it, the instrument played hard. The buttons were hard.
JW: How so?
DP: By the end of a night of playing Lester's horn, my hands would be killing me, even after I had the horn restored the first time. It had been rusting after all those years in Lee's basement. The problem was the pads wouldn't cover the holes completely. Playing the bottom of the horn, I had to use a ton of pressure with my hands. The horn just wouldn’t make friends. Then one day I fell on the horn and bent it.
JW: What did you do?
DP: I took it to a pro named Steve Smith. He's a repair guy at United Band Instrument in L.A. He looked at it and said I'd have to part with it for a few months. He redid all the holes and pads. I just got the horn back a few months ago. I just recorded with it for a CD still in the works.
JW: How do you feel when you play Lester Young's saxophone?
DP: I’m scared to death. It’s such a thrill. I cry. People come over and touch it. Recently I played an event. Afterward, I took out the horn and left it in front of me on the table. I think about 200 people took pictures with it. All the musicians come by and finger it. Lester would have loved that.
JW: Do you feel Lester's presence when you play it?
DP: I always feel Lester is looking over me. All I do is try to sound like Prez when I play it. There’s an aura about the horn. It has such a big sound. It's scary. It’s off center the way they built it, but it plays a little bit better when I hold it sideways like Prez did [laughs].
JW: Why did Lester play the sax off to the side?
DP: Bassist Al McKibbon once asked Prez that quesiton. Al said Prez said he plays like that so he can be closer to the horn's bell, so he can get closer to it and hear it better.
JW: What's your favorite Lester Young story?
DP: Someone once asked him why he gives everyone a nickname, like "Lady Day" and "Sweets." Prez said, "First of all I never remember their real names. If I put a made-up name on them, I remember that and feel closer to them." Prez was a comic.
JW: A comic?
DP: Oh sure. Prez told really funny stories. In fact, half the reason he played so well was his comedic background. There's a lot of whimsy in there. Someone once asked him how he could play so well since it looked as though he were drunk all the time. He said, "I am drunk all the time." The person asked, "How do you sound sober?" Prez said, "I don’t know, I’ve never been sober. This is my normal thing. I drink and I feel right." Poor Prez.
JW: What's the big lesson you learned from Prez?
DP: Lester would say you have to learn the lyric to play a song instrumentally. You can’t just play a song. The lyrics let you know the song's story, so you understand it.
DP: Right next to my bed. It never leaves my side.
JazzWax tracks: One of the best collections of The Dave Pell Octet is The Dave Pell Octet: Jazz for Dancing and Listening. Arrangements are by Marty Paich, Shorty Rogers, Jack Montrose, Johnny Mandel, Bill Holman, Andre Previn, Jimmy Giuffre and Wes Hensel. Quite a lineup. The two-CD set is available here.
JazzWax note No. 1: For more on Dave Pell and Lester Young's Dolnet, read Doug Ramsey's wonderful essay here. As always with Doug, lots of great detail and fabulous prose.
JazzWax note No. 2: A special thanks to James Harrod, the highly knowledgeable West Coast jazz historian who provided images of the Dolnet ads. For more on James, go here to Jazz Research.